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Nicira's Network Virtualization Platform Release Raises Questions

Nicira, which has just emerged from stealth mode, says it has cracked the code to deliver true network virtualization. The company claims its Network Virtualization Platform brings the capabilities and benefits of server and storage virtualization to the network, addressing what has been a physical barrier in the path to further virtualization progress. The news has been heralded as a "game changer" and "the biggest change to networking in 25 years," and a number of major companies such as AT&T, eBay, Rackspace and Fidelity are paying customers.

But following the initial hoopla, some questions are being asked about how well the Nicira platform can deliver network services via software through all of the layers of a typical enterprise network. And others ask whether decades of legacy physical network innovation can so easily be replaced.

"Think of the number of man-years that have been sunk into the networking layers that they are trying to recreate in software," says Jon Oltsik, a principal analyst at the research firm Enterprise Strategy Group. "Conceptually they are spot-on, but I think to go in and replace IP backbone networking with virtual software is a tall order."

Another analyst, Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research, also called the Nicira news significant "in theory."

To be sure, analysts like Oltsik understand the problem, which he has defined as "data center network discontinuity." The use of server virtualization has consolidated the size of data centers and improved operational efficiency, but the network has not kept up. At the same time, more demands have been placed on the network to deliver services such as intrusion detection and prevention, firewalls and load balancing. So Nicira's Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) is certainly compelling, he says.

According to a recent InformationWeek Research trending survey, if enterprises don't plan to virtualize the majority of their servers by the end of 2012, they'll be firmly in the minority. The largest growth came in the number of respondents who say they'll virtualize servers. Just 13% planned to do that back in 2010. This year, the number almost doubled, with 25% citing that goal. Server consolidation was the top driver, by far, for virtualization efforts in 2010. Now that's tied with desires for high availability, better disaster recovery, and improved flexibility and agility.

Meanwhile, other players in the network virtualization space are asking how well NVP can virtualize the full stack of layers in a network. Dante Malagrino, co-founder and CEO of Embrane, says his company is shipping virtual networking software that delivers Web application firewall protection, load balancing and WAN optimization, which he describes as network services targeted at the application layer. Nicira's NVP serves network Layers 2 and 3 ,while Embrane serves the Layer 4 to 7 space. A solution designed for one part of a network is not interchangeable with the other, he argues.

Malagrino says Layers 2 to 3 and Layers 4 to 7 are quite different markets. Cisco Systems, for instance, dominates in the L2 to L3 market, while other vendors, such as F5 Networks and Riverbed, have significant share in the L4 to L7 space.

In other words, same planet, different worlds.

"When you look at what it takes to virtualize and scale network service functionality, you need to build an architecture that's much more about scaling compute than it is about scaling the network capacity," Malagrino says about the L4 to L7 layers. "So Nicira is doing some very interesting things in the realm of scaling Layer 2 and Layer 3, but when it comes to scaling network services, it's going to be a different animal."

Nicira responds that there is plenty of room for everyone to jump into the pool.

"It's called a Network Virtualization Platform," says Nicira CEO Steve Mullaney. "We're going to create a platform with APIs, and we're going to be able to go partner and create an ecosystem of other partners who will be able to program in [additional services], including maybe people like Embrane. We haven't talked to them, but my guess is there's going to be a long tail of ecosystem partners."